Saint Maximus’ Questions of Thalassius is a dense work where the erudite saint, via a hyper-allegorical interpretation of Scripture, tries to lay out the groundwork for a salvific spiritual life. In short, he discerns that attachments to material realities leading to imagination (which takes us away from the inimitable God beyond description) as well as love of pleasure and loathing of pain, are distractions for the Christian who’s chief desire is to attain to the dispassionate life of God.
In reflecting upon this, Maximus unpacks what Jesus Christ’s human nature is like as this helps us understand what really is human nature before the Fall–an important topic due to the Christological disputes of the day. Because of this doctrines of anthropology, gnomic and free will, original sin, soteriology, the atonement, and more are unpacked throughout the book. Click here to view part II.
As follows are quotations from Maximus at length. I offer a brief synopsis of my own thoughts on topics that may be hard to ascertain without reading the book in its entirety. These thoughts of mine are obviously secondary in nature to the teaching of the saint.
What the Passions Are
Maximus teaches that passions are essentially the opposite of dispassion (big surprise). Passions originate by exciting within man things that are natural and good (such as eating, Godliness, or the like) and when these “assaults” or suggestions work their way into a man’s mind, natural desires become converted into passions (covered in more detail in the next section).
By passions I mean pleasure, grief, desire, fear, and what follows from them. (1.1)
The unclean spirits are accustomed to lead men astray by deceitfully exciting passions that are contrary to nature under the appearance of those that are natural. (21, Scholia 6)
Evil is observed in rational beings according to passion that comes about contrary to nature, not by natural potential. (44, Scholia 4)
The Origin of the Passions and Original Sin
The origin of original sin is important, because if we misunderstand this we misunderstand both human nature (which means we misunderstand Jesus Christ Himself) and associated Marian doctrines (such as those revolving around her conception.)
The Fall occurred specifically because Adam was provided with a promise of false divinization (Question 64). Essentially, Adam was deceived because it was not possible for him to purposely choose evil due to him initially lacking a faculty of gnomic willing (see next section). However, once Adam chose evil, this allowed passions to enter in and created a cycle of pleasure and pain. Until this cycle is broken, the effects of the Fall continue to cascade.
The dichotomy of pleasure and pain is extremely important. The desire for pleasure brings about pain. It should be noted that “intelligible pleasure” (the capacity of having pleasure in the things of God, cf Question 61) is natural to man. The pleasure Maximus speaks against that which pertains to our desire for visceral feelings that are irrelevant to enjoying God.
The continuation of either pleasure or pain propagates original sin throughout the race. This is an important principle that Maximus applies to Christology. His incarnation occurred without pleasure and His birth without pain. These teachings (explicitly from the second century) formed the bedrock of Maximus’ thought on this topic.
Maximus also indicates what the passions are–many of which would surprise us. “Sorrow, hopelessness, despair, the denial of providence, torpor,” amongst others are seen as the result of a will turned against God. It is important we understand what Maximus taught to be natural before the fall (and consistent with Godliness) and natural after the fall (and therefore actually unnatural.) Man is by nature rational, but after the fall has become subject to irrational thinking and behavior.
Maximus’ thought is consistent with the western view of concupiscence. In Question 21 he credits “universal sin” for causing “the disposition of…will” to be inclined towards “an indissoluble bond of evil.” This disposition is activated in both the prelapsarian (for the first time) and postlapsarian states by assaults of passion that are in fact temptations towards natural goods with nefarious purposes. If accepted, they work their way internally and become blameworthy passions. Such assaults were not blameless passions beforehand nor they should be confused as such. Rather, when internalized they either cause the perversion of the will, thus the original sin before the Fall. After the Fall, these assault help imbibe a disordered will to indulge in blameworthy passions of its own choosing. In this sense, natural suggestions (for food, life, procreation) become unnatural ones (gluttony, avarice for fear of death, lust).
Jesus never assumed a disordered will and all of His dealings with the passions were on the blameless and natural level. Further, he never internalized any assault of natural passion nor did He have the capacity for such, just like Adam (cf Damascene, Exposition, Book 3, Chap 20).
The first man, consequently, being deficient in the actual movement of his natural powers toward their goal, fell sick with ignorance of his own Cause, and, following the counsel of the serpent, thought that God was the very thing of which the divine commandment had forbidden him to partake. Becoming thus a transgressor and falling into ignorance of God, he completely mixed the whole of his intellective power with the whole of sensation, and drew into himself the composite, destructive, passion-forming knowledge of sensible things. (Prologue, 1.2.13)
It seems that, being under the influence of the passions [i.e. after the fall], he [Adam] was ignorant of the fact that it is impossible for pleasure to exist without pain. (Prologue, 1.2.14)
Thus [after the Fall] the great and innumerable mob of passions was introduced into human life and corrupted it…self-love is distressed by pain, then we give birth to anger, envy, hate, enmity, remembrance of past injuries, reproach, slander, oppression, sorrow, hopelessness, despair, the denial of providence, torpor, negligence, despondency, discouragement, faint-heartedness, grief out of season, weeping and wailing, dejection, lamentation, envy, jealousy, spite, and whatever else is produced by our inner disposition when it is deprived of occasions for pleasure. (Prologue, 1.2.15)
I believe that the passions were introduced on account of the fall from perfection, emerging in the more irrational part of human nature, and it was through them that, at the very moment of the transgression, the distinct and definite likeness to irrational animals appeared in man instead of the divine and blessed image. (1.2)
He manifested the first Adam in both the mode of His creaturely origin and the mode
of His birth. I mean this in the sense that the first man, having received his being from God and coming to be by the very genesis of his being, was, according to his creaturely origin, free from corruption and sin—for neither corruption nor sin was created together with him. But when by sinning he transgressed God’s commandment, he was condemned to birth propagated through passion and sin, so that henceforth sin originates in the passible part of our nature, associated with birth, as if by a kind of law, under which no one is sinless, for all are subject by nature to the law of birth, introduced after man’s creaturely origin in consequence of his sin. (21.2)
[I]f human nature, in the first man, had not sinned, the multiplication of the human race would have proceeded not through the union of bodies, which is the penalty of sin, but in a miraculous and divine manner, without the contamination of any seed. (21, Scholia 4)
[T]hrough sin the original transgression continued to thrive together with the passibility associated with birth, there was no hope of freedom, since human nature was bound in the disposition of its will by an indissoluble bond of evil. The more human nature hastened to propagate itself through the process of birth, the more tightly it bound itself to the law of sin, insofar as nature’s very passibility reactivated the transgression within it…[O]n account of the universal sin inherent in human passibility—operating through unnatural passions concealed under the guise of the natural passions. Through the unnatural passions, and by exploiting nature’s passibility, every evil power is actively at work, driving the inclination of the will by means of the natural passions into the corruption of unnatural passions (21.3)
Thus two sins came about in the forefather through his transgression of the divine commandment: the first was blameworthy, but the second was blameless, having been caused by the first. The first was a sin of free choice, which voluntarily abandoned the good, but the second was of nature, which involuntarily and as a consequence of free choice lost its immortality. Our Lord and Savior corrected this mutual corruption and alteration of nature when He assumed the whole of our nature (42.2)
The first sin, he says, is the turning away of free will, which the Lord did not possess, even if He indeed assumed the passibility of human nature, which was the punishment for the turning away of Adam’s faculty of free will. (42, Scholia 5)
The law…of the generation and corruption of the body was only afterwards imposed on the nature of human beings, and it is according to this law that we are born and give birth, because we did not keep but rather trampled on the divinizing law of the Spirit, which was the first commandment given to us. (Question 49, Scholia 21)
God, who fashioned human nature, did not create sensible pleasure or pain together with it, but instead devised for this nature a certain capacity for intelligible pleasure, whereby human beings would be able to enjoy God ineffably. The first human being, however, at the same moment that he was brought into being, surrendered this capacity—I mean the intellect’s natural desire for God—to physical sensation, and in his initial impulse toward sensory objects, mediated through his senses, he came to know pleasure activated contrary to nature. God, however, in His providential concern for our salvation, attached pain to this pleasure, as a kind of power of chastisement, whereby the law of death was wisely planted in the nature of our bodies in order to limit the madness of the intellect in its desire to incline unnaturally toward sensory objects. (61.2)
This is because all pain, the cause of whose proper generation is a prior act of pleasure, is naturally—in view of its cause—a debt that must be paid in full by all who share in human nature. (61.3)
Thus after the transgression, all human beings possessed pleasure as something naturally antecedent to their proper birth, and absolutely no one was by nature free from an impassioned birth conditioned by pleasure. Experiencing pain and sufferings as if in payment of a natural debt. (61.4)
After the transgression, he says, the beginning of human nature was conception from seed through pleasure, and birth through a flow of blood, while its end was death through corruption in pain. The Lord, however, not possessing such a beginning for His birth in the flesh, was not subjected by nature to its end, that is, to death. (61, Scholia 10)
The devil, being envious of both God and us, and having persuaded man by guile into thinking that God was envious of him, prepared man to transgress the commandment. (61, Scholia 12)
When, on the other hand, he [Satan] has begun to operate through our natural movements, he uses his sophistry to bend and pervert our practical powers to things contrary to nature. (62.16)
[T]he devil conquered Adam by promising him the rank of divinity. (64, Scholia 23)
Prelapsarian Human State and Gnomic Will
Many of Maximus’ observations of what precisely the natural prelapsarian state was for Adam can only be gleaned in the midst of discussions about Jesus Christ. Ultimately, Maximus’ concern was that Jesus’ true humanity be understood, but that meant confronting the issue of Jesus having an authentic human will as well a a divine will (as opposed to a divine-human will hybrid, monothelitism). So, to know what true humanity is requires knowing what man was before the Fall.
We can infer the following. Adam initially had “incorruption” (Question 21) and was not initially moved by the “inclination of his will” (Question 21). The preceding is a euphemism for gnomic will. Due to gnomic will not existing, choosing sin apart from deception was impossible.
The lack of gnomic willing in the prelapsarian state does not mean that free will did not exist. Adam authentically had free will (“free choice,” Question 42 and 61), but in choosing evil by deception Adam formed sensuality. Through sensuality, his formerly free will transformed into gnomic willing. Visceral sensation as well as imagination (which is implicitly hedonistic) now made it possible for man to be subjected to endless, blameworthy passions.
In order to rescue human nature from this evil state of helplessness, the only-begotten Son and Word of God, becoming perfect man out of His love for mankind, assumed the sinlessness—without the incorruption—of Adam’s original constitution according to his creaturely origin. He also assumed the passibility—without the sin—from the birth that was subsequently introduced into human nature…[I]n the passibility of Adam [i.e. after the fall from incorruption], on account of sin, that the wicked demons conducted their invisible operations concealed under the law of contingent human nature. Thus it was only to be expected that, on account of the flesh, they beheld Adam’s passible nature in God the Savior, and thought that, in this contingent state, He was necessarily a mere man subject to the law of nature, but not moved by the inclination of his will. [i.e. No gnomic will] They therefore assailed Him, hoping that they might prevail even upon Him, through His natural passibility, to form an image in His mind [i.e. an exterior assault of passion which is then willingly accepted and thereby becomes an interior assault of passion] of an unnatural passion and act on it as they would… He is God and Master and by nature free from all passions. Instead, He provoked, by means of our temptations, the wicked power, thwarting it by His own attack, and putting to death the very power that expected to thwart Him just as it had thwarted Adam in the beginning. (21.4)
Because Adam’s natural power of free choice was corrupted first, it corrupted nature together with itself, losing the grace of impassibility. And thus the fall of free choice from the good toward evil became the first and blameworthy sin. (42.2)
[I]n every passion it naturally rules and leads the corresponding organ of sense perception, for without a substrate to attract the powers of the soul toward him by means of a sensation, no passion could ever come into existence. (50.11)
In the absence of a material object, he says, a passion cannot be constituted. For example, in the absence of a woman, there can be no unchastity; and if there is no food, there can be no gluttony; and if there is no gold, there can be no love of money. It follows that every impassioned stimulation of our natural powers is ruled by a sensible object, that is, by the demon who through the object incites the soul to sin. (50, Scholia 8)
Pleasure and pain, he says, were not created together with the nature of the flesh. Instead, the transgression conceived both the former, resulting in the corruption of free choice, and the latter, resulting in the condemnation and dissolution of nature, so that pleasure would bring about the soul’s voluntary death through sin. (61, Scholia 1)
The prophet Jonah, then, signifies Adam, that is, the common nature of human beings, and in himself he mystically figures our nature, which slipped away from the good things of God, as if from Joppa, and descended, as though into the sea, into the misery of this present life. Our nature, I say, which was submerged in the chaotic and roaring ocean of material attachments; which was swallowed by the whale, that intelligible and insatiable beast, the devil; and which was inundated by water on all sides, taking on, up to its very soul, the water of temptations to evil, so that human life was submerged in temptations; and which was encompassed by the final abyss, that is, imprisoned by the complete ignorance of the intellect, and overwhelmed by the great weight of evil pressing down on its power of reason. (64.6)
[I]nasmuch as human nature was receptive to their deception and evil, it initially entered into these clefts. But later, nature itself became their very basis, on account of its most wicked disposition, possessing, like eternal bars, innate attachments to material
things, which do not permit the mind to be free from the darkness of ignorance, and so prevent it from beholding the light of true knowledge. (64.6)
The “shame of their mouth” is the movement of the intellect that gives a form to the passions, and fashions beautiful images that give pleasure to the senses. For no passion would ever arise without the intellect’s conceptual capacity to fashion such forms. (65.7)
[W]e are taught to undertake voluntarily the circumcision of the impassioned disposition of the soul, since it is by such a disposition that the inclination of the will is trained to adapt itself to nature, correcting the impassioned law of its acquired mode of birth. This is because mystical circumcision is the complete removal of the intellect’s impassioned relation to the mode of generation that was subsequently added to it. The Sabbath, on the other hand, is the complete inactivity of the passions and the universal cessation of the intellect’s movement around created realities, and the perfect passage toward the divine. (65.20)
Christology and Consequences on Gnomic Will
Jesus Christ did not properly inherit nor was subject to corruption, natural passions, or any aspect of the Fall. The Scriptures teach Christ assumed only “the likeness of sinful flesh.” (Rom 8:3) He voluntarily and spontaneously assumed these things (Question 61), as they were not natural to sinless flesh nor possible for human flesh that is enhypostatized (literally divinized flesh according to both essence and energy in the hypostatic union.)
This was understood by other saints. Saint John of Damascus comments that:
He willingly and spontaneously accepted that which was natural. So that fear itself and terror and agony belong to the natural and innocent passions and are not under the dominion of sin. (Exposition, Book 3, Chap 23)
We must understand that the term “natural” in the above means what is natural after the Fall. This is because “innocent passions” did not exist in the prelapsarian state:
[T]he natural and innocent passions are those which are not in our power, but which have entered into the life of man owing to the condemnation by reason of the transgression. (Ibid., Chap 20)
In passing, Maximus makes note that Christ had “the potential to die.” (Question 21) This is important because it demonstrates that only those with original sin have to die and only those without glorified flesh could set into motion a course of events that lead to sin and death.
Jesus Christ assumed the consequences of original sin, which were of an amoral quality and so by nature He did not have to die–His flesh was sinless and not subjected to original sin. However, by assumption He permitted His flesh the potential to die–making it completely prelapsarian, but not glorified. Glorified flesh has no potential for death.
Jesus Christ’s prelapsarian nature meant he had “free choice” (i.e. free will according to nature before the Fall) without gnomic willing. His free will was in fact in a state of “natural stability,” or in other words, as Adam had according to his nature before the Fall. (Opscula 1, cf Question 42)
He assumed the passible condition of our nature—like ours but without sin… the evil powers could find nothing at all in the natural passibility of His human nature that was properly His own. (21.7)
He who by His [divine] nature and as man is not subject to the passion of pleasure, appropriated our temptation to pleasure in order to provoke the one who was tempting Him. As mortal man He was by nature passible in the flesh, but insofar as He was sinless, He was without passion in the inclination of His will. (21, Scholia 7)
The passibility of pleasure, that is, sin, did not exist in Christ. But He did possess the passibility of the flesh, that is, the potential to die. (21, Scholia 10)
He too possessed passibility as something adorning the incorruptibility of His free choice [i.e. free will before gnomic willing from the fall]…He corrected the passibility of nature through the incorruptibility of His faculty of free choice, making the end of nature’s passibility, by which I mean death, into the beginning of the transformation of our nature into incorruptibility. In this way, just as the alteration of nature from incorruptibility to corruption came to all men through one man, who voluntarily turned his free choice away from the good, so too, through one man, Jesus Christ, who did not turn His faculty of free choice away from the good, the restoration of nature from corruption to incorruptibility came to all men. (42.2; cf Opuscala 1: “Christ’s human nature does not, like us, move according to free choice…but having received its being by virtue of its union with God the Word, it possesses an unwavering movement…it possesses the natural appetitive movement of its free choice in a condition of natural stability.)
He nonetheless is naturally incorruptible according to His free choice, inasmuch as He is without sin. (42, Scholia 2)
The “flesh of sin” is flesh generated by male seed, and this is why it possesses by nature in equal measure the capacity for both sin and corruption, having sin as its beginning and corruption as the end of its proper existence. But the flesh that is in the “likeness of the flesh of sin” is the flesh of the Lord, which was constituted without male seed. In terms of its nature it is corruptible, making Him “like” us, but in terms of its power it is naturally sinless, making Him “unlike” us. (54, Scholia 13)
[W]hen the Word of God appeared to us through the flesh and became perfect man but without sin, and in the flesh of Adam willingly bore only the punishment of Adam’s nature. (61.8)
Passions Can Help the Christian
Maximus is not strictly concerned with narrow theological topics. He sees practical applications for his speculations. Here, we can see that he believes God permitted an evil (the passions) for the good of the Christian.
Nonetheless, even the passions become good among the diligent, when they wisely separate them from corporeal objects and use them to acquire the things of heaven. This happens, for example, when they refashion desire into an appetitive movement of intellective yearning for divine realities; or pleasure into the untroubled joy of the intellect’s active enticement to divine gifts; or fear into a concern to preserve themselves from future punishment for their failings; or grief into corrective repentance of a present evil. (1.3)
By means of the passions associated with human nature, Scripture gives shape to the different modes of God’s providence for human beings. (1, Scholia 1)
For whoever desires true life, and who recognizes that every pain, whether voluntary or involuntary, is the death of pleasure, which is the mother of death, will accept with gladness all the “rough” attacks of involuntary passions. (47.8)
Maximus believed that Christians are saved by “faith alone” (Question 6). Faith is not of our “own” and salvation is not by our own “efforts.” (Question 51)
However, he defines faith as both believing the Gospel as well as following Christ’s commandments (Questions 33 and 49, cf Matt 7:21 and James 2:22). He seconds earlier fathers in speculating that baptism purifies the mind of passions, but astutely points out that baptism is transformative inasmuch “the extent that the will is willing.” (Question 6)
Those who attain to perfection (as Christ admonishes us to do in Matt 5:48) are able to have completely divinized minds. This is a “permanent state” (Question 6), so it is likely Maximus believes this is only accomplished after death. For the perfect, they no longer have gnomic willing and on top of this, cannot be deceived and fall into sin, due to reaching a perfect state of knowledge (which we may infer Adam lacked).
The first possesses this grace in potential according to faith alone; the second, in addition to faith, realizes on the level of knowledge the active, most divine likeness of the God who is known in the one who knows Him. In those whom the first mode of birth is observed, it happens that—because the disposition of their will has not yet been fully extracted from its passionate fixation on the flesh, and because they have not been completely imbued by the Spirit with active participation in the divine mysteries that have taken place—it happens, I say, that their inclination to sin is never very far away for the simple reason that they continue to will it. For the Spirit does not give birth to a disposition of the will without the consent of that will, but to the extent that the will is willing, He transforms and divinizes it. Whoever has shared in this divinization through experience and knowledge is incapable of reverting from what he, once and for all, truly and precisely became cognizant of in actual deed, to something else besides this. In those, on the other hand, undergoing the second mode of birth, the Holy Spirit takes the whole of their free choice and transposes it completely from earth to heaven, and, through true knowledge realized in actual deed, refashions the intellect with the blessed beams of light of God the Father, so that it is deemed another God, experiencing, through a permanent state obtained by grace, that which God does not experience but simply is according to His essence… So even if we should possess the Spirit of adoption—which is a life-giving seed that bestows the likeness of the Sower upon those who are born of it—but do not offer Him a disposition of the will pure of any propensity or inclination toward something else, we will, as a result, willingly sin even after “being born through water and the Spirit.” But if, to the contrary, we were to prepare the disposition of our will to receive cognitively the operations of the water and the Spirit, then, through our ascetic practice. (6.2)
Note: “Birth” appears not to be a reference to baptism, but the first to having faith and perfecting it through works, and the second to the eschaton.
[In baptism] we are given the grace of adoption only in potential, since the possibility to become sons of God is given generally to all the baptized…But in the second mode [in the eschaton], through the keeping of the commandments and the knowledge of the truth, we are given the perfection of adoption itself, that is, the inability to sin brought about by divinization, which we do not yet have in the first mode. (6, Scholia 1)
Faith that is inactive, he says, possesses the grace of adoption only in potential, insofar as those who possess it do not move in accordance with the commandments. (6, Scholia 2)
[T]he kingdom of God is actualized faith, and if the kingdom of God brings about an unmediated union of God and those in His kingdom, faith is clearly demonstrated to be a relational power, or a relationship that effectively realizes in a manner beyond nature the unmediated union of the faithful with the God in whom they have faith. (33.2)
By “faith” he means the kingdom possessing the divine form and goodness through works…Faith, he says, is knowledge that cannot be rationally demonstrated. And if such knowledge cannot be rationally demonstrated, then faith is a relationship that transcends nature, through which, in a manner beyond knowledge and demonstration, we are united to God in a union beyond intellection. (33, Scholia 1-2)
It is thus toward this flesh that we make our way, sanctifying our own flesh through the virtues, through which we are of a nature to be “conformed” to the “body of His glory” according to the grace of the Spirit, reaching the house of God through unmixed contemplation according to simple and indivisible knowledge, and arriving at the very intellective soul of the Lord, so that we too might have, according to the Apostle, “the intellect of Christ,” through participation in the Spirit, by grace becoming for Him all that He is by nature and that according to dispensation He became for us. (48, Scholia 1)
The first resurrection that takes place within us, he says, is faith in the God whom we have slain through our ignorance, and such faith is rightly dispensed through the fulfillment of the commandments. (49, Scholia 3)
[F]or what could one possibly bring forward that would be equal to faith, as if his faith were due to his own efforts, and not an offering to him from God? (51.7)
For whoever is so conceited as to think that he has reached the height of virtue by his own efforts will in no way be moved to seek the primal Cause of good things. (52.8)
For each person acquires the energy of the Spirit according to the measure of his manifest faith, so that each person is a steward of his own grace. (54.13)
Note: Man participates in the actual energy of God and not a created medium that channels grace.
He says that the cause of the distribution of divine goods is the measure of each person’s faith, for it is in proportion to our faith that we receive eagerness to practice the commandments. For whoever practices the commandments reveals the measure of his faith in proportion to his practice, and in proportion to his faith receives the due measure of grace. But whoever does not practice the commandments reveals by his lack of practice the measure of his lack of faith, and in proportion to his faithlessness the privation of grace. (54, Scholia 11)
[B]y the call of grace, He granted solely to those who received this call with joy—as manifested in their works—the grace of recreation. (54, Scholia 12)
Real faith is constitutive of truth, containing no falsehood, while a good conscience bears the power of love, containing not even the slightest transgression of God’s commandments. (54, Scholia 17)
[W]hoever does not keep the commandments is without the divine light, and bears the mere but not real name of faith. (54, Scholia 24)
This is because the union of the whole of human nature with God the Word fortified nature by freeing it from the curse, so that we have no excuse if our will remains attached to the passions. For the divinity of the Word, being ever present by grace to those who believe in Him, withers away the law of sin found in the flesh. (54, Scholia 27)
[T]he entire salvation of beings solely in the heart of those being saved, a salvation which is secured by faith and a good conscience. For nothing is swifter than faith, and nothing is easier for someone to do than to confess with his mouth the grace of Him in whom he believes. (61.6)
Through diligence concerning the fear of God, he has purified himself of the stains of his acquired passions, making his life splendid and brilliant by the casting-off of defilements that are contrary to nature. (63.8)
By “unbelief” he means the denial of the commandments; by “faith” he means acceptance of the commandment (64, Scholia 17)
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